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No, you're not crazy. It's sexism.

September 14, 2007 | Pages 8 amd 9

ELIZABETH SCHULTE looks at the warped way that women are viewed in society--and its many damaging consequences in the lives of working-class women.

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THE ARTICLE was titled "Stripper poles: New feminism?" In it, a company publicist for Lil' Mynx portable dance poles announced, "A very good percentage of frat houses now have them."

But there was worse to come. The Philadelphia Inquirer journalist blamed booming sales of stripper poles on...women! And their desire to assert themselves!

"There was a time when feminism was about women being smart and assertive, and building inner strength," reads the article. "Somewhere along the line, though, it morphed into slut culture. Girls tell themselves they're in charge. But they're still just strutting it for the boys."

"Honestly, we just wanted to say we had a stripper pole," maintained one frat boy. "We never actually expected girls to dance on it."

This is just one warped and confused example of the way women are viewed in society today--treated as sex objects and somehow expected to take the blame for that treatment. Despite the gains that women have made over the decades, we continue to see things that ought to be from a bygone past era of sexism.

What else to read

In "Turning Back the Clock: Women, Work and Family Today," published in the International Socialist Review, Jen Roesch documents the sustained attack on the ideological and material gains of the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s.

William Saletan's Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War focuses on how the right wing has made steady progress against a woman's right to choose, one restriction at a time.

For a more general account of women's oppression and the struggle against it, Sharon Smith's Women and Socialism argues for a struggle that integrates women's liberation with the fight against a society that puts profit above human needs.


Consider the article in July's issue of the financial magazine Money, titled "How to marry a millionaire."

"Work hard, take risks, maybe build your own business," reads the article. "That's the traditional route to financial success. Of course, there's another highly traditional path to acquiring wealth that isn't talked about quite as much these days: Marry money....

"Ultrarich men once gravitated toward women with the showiest plumage--or plastic surgery. That has changed, says Richard Conniff, author of The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide. 'Arm candy is now seen as déclassé,' he notes. These days, the more prestigious your credentials and the brainier you are, the better."

Wow, things really have changed.

But first, take the quiz. Question number one: "What type of relationship are you looking for? a.) Friendship, b.) Friendship with benefits, c.) Marriage d.) Meal ticket." The preferred answer: "You want commitment. The big money lies in marriage--ask any divorce lawyer."

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NO, YOU aren't crazy. It's sexism. There are plenty of people arguing that we shouldn't take it so seriously, and it's all just tongue in cheek. Meanwhile, we're left wondering how we got here?

Alongside the sexist, distorted and often hostile images of women in movies, on television and in advertising come shocking statistics about violence against women.

One in six women in the U.S. has been the victim of sexual assault, a number that is likely low since these incidents are still underreported. One in five high school girls had been physically or sexually abused by a dating partner, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A 2003 University of Iowa study found that "79 percent of participants reported experiences of sexual harassment during their military service; 30 percent of the women reported an attempted or completed rape."

And if you're looking for a place to report these abuses, your chances are slim to none if you're in the U.S. military. The same is true in civilian life, especially considering that domestic violence is experienced by at least 40 percent of police families--a rate two to four times higher than in the average family.

Though some women have managed to climb the ladder to the top of society, the majority of women are struggling at the bottom.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, household income increased moderately last year, but in large part because more people in households were working, or working longer hours. Average earnings for men and women declined for the third consecutive year.

Families increasingly rely on women's wages, with nearly 30 percent of working women earning all of their family's income and 60 percent earning half or more. Yet women's wages continue to lag behind men's--at 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. And statistics show that when women's wages stagnate, so do men's.

The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal for a company to pay a woman a lower wage than a man doing the same job--but it did little about raising wages in jobs that are dominated by women.

There are more women employed in jobs that decades ago would be considered male-dominated fields, but for the most part, the majority of women do work that is typically associated with women, such as caring for children and the elderly or sick. Nearly three-fifths of women workers are employed in service, sales or clerical jobs.

"You could actually plot it on a graph--for every 1 percent increase in the percentage of women in an occupation, the pay would fall $42 a year," writes Ellen Bravo in Taking on the Big Boys.

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted existing laws against pay discrimination when it ruled that employees had to file a complaint within 180 days of their first discriminatory paycheck, not their last paycheck.

So Lilly Ledbetter, who worked for 18 years at a Goodyear plant before she learned all her male colleagues were making 20 percent to 40 percent more than she was for doing exactly the same job, wasn't entitled to any back pay or no damages, according to the court, because she didn't meet the 180-day deadline.

This is hardly a surprise, considering that Chief Justice John Roberts--put on the court by George Bush--called equal pay for women "a radical redistributive concept" in a 1984 memo to fellow Republicans.

But there are more reasons for this infuriating state of affairs for women workers than the Bush administration. All of Washington, Republican and Democrats alike, preside over this inequality.

And solving this inequality by increasing working-class women's wages to match men's is a price that Corporate America, the people who pull the strings in Washington, won't pay without a fight.

Recall that it was Bill Clinton who destroyed the U.S. welfare system--with the support of Hillary Clinton--and plunged millions of women and their families into poverty. But because of their historical strategy of loyal support for the Democratic Party, middle-class women's organizations sat on their hands while Clinton's 1996 "welfare reform" legislation ended federal guarantees for such programs.

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THE WOMEN'S movement of the 1960s and 1970 made groundbreaking gains for all women, such as the legalization of abortion. Inspired by the fight for civil rights and the antiwar movement--and shaped by the economic fact that masses of women were now entering the paid workforce--tens of thousands of men and women mobilized to put demands for women's liberation and equality on the table.

The movement took up the concerns of working-class women like child care and equal pay. But as time went by, the gains for middle-class women were greater than for working-class women.

As Jennifer Roesch wrote in the International Socialist Review, "For most working-class women, the legacy of the women's movement is highly contradictory. While the movement raised the expectations and hopes of millions of women, the reality of capitalism meant that it could not deliver on those promises."

So while a few women enjoy life at the top of society, the vast majority of working-class women haven't seen many concrete gains.

And just because a politician is a woman doesn't mean she has the interests of all women at heart. Take Katherine Blanco, the Democratic Party governor of Louisiana, who signed a far-reaching ban on abortion in that state.

Today, what organization that does exist among mainstream women's groups is focused like a laser on getting Democrats elected--often despite their record on women's issues.

Not only does it confound common sense for an abortion rights organization to endorse someone who doesn't support abortion rights, but this strategy has allowed the debate on women's issues to drift ever rightward, toward what the Republicans say, and away from what would benefit the majority of women.

This has made it possible for the right wing to make unheard-of ideological inroads over the past three decades. Even during the bad old days of the Ronald Reagan era, the right would never have dreamed they would get so close to banning abortions or getting rid of federally funded social services like welfare.

Over the last 10 years, the U.S. government has spent $1.5 billion for worse-than-ineffective abstinence-only education.

In July, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona told a House committee that the Bush administration prevented him from discussing research on the effectiveness of teaching about condoms. "Much of the discussion was being driven by theology, ideology [and] preconceived beliefs that were scientifically incorrect," he said.

The groundwork for abstinence-only teachings was laid by the Clinton administration, which initially put funding for the program in its welfare reform legislation.

The level of sexism involved in abstinence-only miseducation is shocking. In Ohio, for example, the abstinence-only program teaches that condoms are ineffective in preventing pregnancy 15 percent of the time during the first year of use--and concludes that "over a period of five years, there could be a 50 percent chance or higher of getting pregnant with condoms."

And its instruction has this to say about how girls should dress: "Deep down, you know that your friend's plunging necklines and short skirts are getting the guys to talk about her. Is that what you want? To see girls drive guys hormones when a guy is trying to see her as a friend. A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?"

All this turning back the clock on women's rights is made easier with an ideological and cultural attack that says women are objects and can't make decisions about our own lives.

If activists are going to be effective at taking up the fight for demands that will benefit working-class women--equal pay, affordable abortion and contraception, and access to child care, for instance--they will have to do so regardless of what politicians believe is "reasonable."

Our demands have been ignored long enough.

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